Subject: biography, physics
German-born Canadian physicist who is best known for his work in determining - using spectroscopy - the electronic structure and geometry of molecules, especially free radicals (atoms or groups of atoms that possess a free, unbonded electron). He received many honours for his work, including the 1971 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
Herzberg was born on 25 December 1904 in Hamburg, where he received his early education. He then studied at the Technische Universität in Darmstadt, from which he gained his doctorate in 1928, and carried out postdoctoral work at the universities of Göttingen, 1928-29, and Bristol, 1929-30. On returning to Germany in 1930 he became a Privatdozent (an unsalaried lecturer) at the Darmstadt Technische Universität but in 1935, with the rise to power of Adolf Hitler, he fled to Canada, where he became research professor of physics at the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, 1935-45. He spent the period 1945-48 in the USA, as professor of spectroscopy at the Yerkes Observatory (part of the University of Chicago) in Wisconsin, then returned to Canada. From 1939 until his retirement in 1969 he was director of the Division of Pure Physics for the National Research Council in Ottawa - a laboratory generally acknowledged as being one of the world's leading centres for molecular spectroscopy.
Herzberg's most important work concerned the application of spectroscopy to elucidate the properties and structure of molecules. Depending on the conditions, molecules absorb or emit electromagnetic radiation (much of it in the visible part of the spectrum) of discrete wavelengths. Moreover, the radiation spectrum is directly dependent on the electronic and geometric structure of an atom or molecule and therefore provides detailed information about molecular energies, rotations, vibrations, and electronic configurations. Herzberg, studying common molecules such as hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon monoxide, discovered new lines in the spectrum of molecular oxygen; called Herzberg bands, these spectral lines have been useful in analysing the upper atmosphere. He also elucidated the geometric structure of molecular oxygen, carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, and acetylene (ethyne); discovered the new molecules phosphorus nitride and phosphorus carbide; proved the existence of the methyl and methylene free radicals; and demonstrated that both neutrons and protons are part of the nucleus. His research in the field of molecular spectroscopy not only provided experimental results of fundamental importance to physical chemistry and quantum mechanics but also helped to stimulate further research into the chemical reactions of gases.
In addition, Herzberg provided much valuable information about certain aspects of astronomy. He interpreted the spectral lines of stars and comets, finding that a rare form of carbon exists in comets. He also showed that hydrogen exists in the atmospheres of some planets, and identified the spectra of certain free radicals in interstellar gas.
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